Wolfenstein 3D (SNES)
A few months after Wolfenstein 3D shipped, id Software got an offer from Japanese publisher Imagineer for cash up front for a Super Famicom port. It would be the first of countless ports of id’s games – often regardless of whether the system could handle it or not – but money’s money to a company just finding its popularity. id accepted, outsourced the task to a programmer they knew, and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward seven months later, when they learned no progress had been made and the deadline was imminent. Like any of us who procrastinated until the night before a project was due, they pulled the game development equivalent of an overnighter (three weeks) to blast out this port.
The result is, objectively, the worst port of Wolfenstein 3D. One wonders if Carmack could have squeezed out more performance if there was more time, or if this was pretty much the limit of what the SNES was capable of. Either way, it’s choppy, it’s pixelated, it’s cut down from the original – but it’s definitely playable. Remembering that zippy PC hardware wasn’t exactly decorating every room in the house in 1994, this is a very functional console version of the adventures of B.J. Blazkowitcz. Much like Paul McCartney’s music, id’s worst is still pretty damn good.
This version kicks off the “Wolfenstein 2.0” round of ports, which include the Mac, 3DO, and Jaguar. All of those are based on the changes and additions made here, with improvements to graphics and sound based on the platform. All of them share the same core updates – 30 cut-down levels presented in linear order instead of chapters, the addition of the bazooka and flamethrower weapons, a backpack collectible that doubles your ammo count, and the availability of an automap to navigate the trickier levels. Episodes are even restructured to give a mission briefing from FDR, giving some plot to a game that originally had none. They’re all generally welcome tweaks that focus more on quality of life than dramatically shaking up the core gameplay.
The cut-down levels are difficult to describe in any useful manner. As I’ve said before, all Wolfenstein 3D levels look the same to me. In general, excess “wings” of a level get cut out. Many levels in the PC release had areas that held some treasure, maybe some health, but no keys or locked doors. These made the level more vast and acted as suitable red herring directions to expand the maze. These get lopped off for the SNES. Long hallways or particularly large rooms – anything that might put a strain on the frame rate – get shrunk or chopped. You won’t notice in gameplay, you won’t lament that your favorite room is gone, but you might get a general sense that the castle is less grandiose.
The bazooka and flamethrower are only semi-useful. Ammo for both is much more limited than regular bullets, so the ordinance seems exclusively intended for bosses. Bazooka rounds pass cleanly through standard enemies, but it’s pretty difficult to find enemies clustered in a straight line in this version. The flamethrower shoots rapid-fire fireballs, but basically blocks your entire view as it fires, while eating valuable fuel faster than the chaingun uses up bullets. I sometimes switched to it when regular ammo was running low, but overall, it’s not terribly useful. Both seem only marginally more effective against bosses – the flamethrower is the worst of the two as you can’t see what the boss is doing while shooting it.
The SNES’ best inclusion, hands down, is mapping strafe to the shoulder buttons. Strafing was available in 90s FPSs, but usually as an awkward modifier (often the Alt key). Its importance wasn’t yet solidified, possibly due to both developers and players just figuring out how to effectively navigate a 3D space. Until online shooters like Quake 3 standardized the WASD layout, most people moved and turned with the arrow keys. I remember mostly using strafe to unstick from walls in these early 90s games, while the tactical advantages of sliding out from behind walls just weren’t a consideration yet.
By putting this move on the shoulder buttons, strafing becomes natural in a way that I wasn’t used to on the PC keyboard, and in a way it feels like the game wasn’t designed to expect. Standard enemies fall so quickly in general that slick moves are almost irrelevant, but bosses become comically inept. All of them stop moving and “aim” before firing, which seems intended as a cue for you to run for cover. Using this second to strafe behind a wall instead, then step right back out and keep firing, makes it incredibly easy to tear them up while taking no damage yourself. There’s a room packed with health kits in every boss level, and the intent seems to be that you keep rushing back to it to repair the damage taken by going toe to toe with these guys. With strafing, I never had to touch the medkits. Bosses basically have nothing on you in a way that almost feels unfair, but certainly empowering.
Of course, the most infamous part of this port is the Nintendo-mandated censorship. Blood is gone, as are the skeletons in cages suggesting torture. All references to the Nazis are gone, with swastikas redrawn to eagles and Hitler’s arm band and mustache erased from his portraits. That would seem like enough, but curiously, they don’t stop there. The guards speak English in this version, and the mission briefings reference the “Master State” and the “Staatmeister” instead of Germany and Hitler. I don’t know if this was specifically to allow release in Germany (the only version of Wolf 3D that was cleared at the time) or Nintendo trying to avoid any and all hints of controversy. Hey, why not both?
Also, the German shepherds are now giant rats. Allegedly. They’re extremely hard to make out, and just look like gray blobs that growl running low to the ground. I would have easily believed they just swapped one dog out for another. Also, their death sound seems extra ridiculous. I’m probably reading into it, but I’d like to imagine it’s an intentional mockery of Ninty’s mandate that shooting countless humans was fine, but shooting puppy dogs was verboten.
As with the Jaguar release, guard behavior is changed so that they always face forward and they never patrol. You cannot sneak up behind a guard, and you won’t find them opening unexpected doors if you haven’t been causing a ruckus. I talked about how roaming guards affected the gameplay in my PC review, and losing out on moments of ambush and surprise is a bit of a loss, but you don’t really notice in the heat of gameplay. Doors still start flying open when the shooting starts, after all.
The most obvious flaw of this port is its terrible resolution, and it doesn’t even fill the screen. I wear glasses these days, and the SNES’ visuals here look pretty close to what I see when I take them off. Sharp definition of anything only happens when you’re pressed directly against it – not a good idea when that object is a guard with a gun – and enemies are mostly picked up by movement. I’ve had a few brown-uniformed guards blend in perfectly with the brown walls across the room, and couldn’t find them at a distance until they moved. There’s just not enough pixels to go around.
But like me without my glasses, you can navigate easily enough. It’s obvious where walls, doors, and items are, they just lack clear definition at a distance. Up close, they start to look comparable on a TV to the blocky characters of the PC release. And in terms of speed, the port is totally playable. There’s still rooms with large groups of enemies, and consistent fights throughout the maze, which is pretty much the key requirement for Wolfenstein. They even stay on the ground after death. It’s far from an ideal graphics tradeoff, but again, it’s pretty reasonable to expect this was most people’s only shot at playing Wolfenstein at the time.
The censorship got the most heckling at the time, but the SNES version feels far from a broken port. Performance is good, the action works well, and its clear enough to spot movement and shoot at it. From a modern perspective, that’s admittedly a very low bar – you should definitely play any other version of Wolfenstein 3D but this one. But if you didn’t have the choice in 1994, this one actually comes off a surprisingly serviceable.
Still Wolfenstein, still fun. Extra version additions do improve the game.
Resolution is manageable, but awfully poor. Censorship changes seem silly. Less levels to play than the PC.
3 thoughts on “Wolfenstein 3D (SNES)”
I can’t believe this was done in 3 weeks. I think that porting to consoles back then was more or less like writing from scratch with regard to writing in assembly and working within the console’s constraints. I can’t even wrap my head around the NES’s 6502 assembly.
I’m curious about the original contractor. Did he find himself in over his head? Did he get a more lucrative gig that took up his time? When Doom took off, how did he feel about ghosting id Software?
Yeah I can’t imagine being entrusted with something by the legendary id and then doing them dirty but maybe that was a common reaction to 65816 assembly. I know that Carmack is a wizard of programming but I didn’t think that it was possible for someone to learn SNES development and churn out a project in that short amount of time, even with a template from which to work.